The Mark Morris Dance Group Performs Modern Dance as Play With Live Music

The Setup: In a moment of visual hijinks, a man and woman in the middle of a budding courtship turn to each other with faces full of passion and, no, they do not promenade, but grind their pelvises in the air back and forth.

It's one of a series of laugh-out-loud moments in A Wooden Tree (2012), a dance full of literal humor of a bawdy nature. Performed to the absurdist folk songs of Ivor Cutlor, and dressed in the threads of '60s East Villagers, the cast tells stories of courtship, friendship, living and dying. It's all in good fun, even the spontaneous vulgarity of hip thrusts to convey serious romance.

A Wooded Tree was one of four repertory works the Mark Morris Dance Group brought to the Wortham Center's Cullen stage on the evenings of January 31 and February 1. Thanks to the Society for the Performing Arts and its impressive Tudor Family Great American Dance Series, the Houston audience was treated to one of the most enriching and fulfilling evenings of dance from a visiting dance company in recent memory.

The Execution: The dances of Mark Morris are known for their wonderful musicality, and unlike the repertories of most modern dance companies, much of his work is performed to live music. The first piece on the program, The Argument (1999), is one of these pieces. Set to the music of Robert Schumann, it is a six-movement dance that explores the interactions of men and women through a series of compelling duets and paired ensemble work.

There is no story here, but the intimacy that is revealed by the movement is enough to fill several volumes. Gravity is the underlying principal here; it takes hold of an initiation point, then the entire body is pulled in that direction. It's a marvel how every note of the music is filled with the somberness of the body's downward pull, which makes the drama onstage that much more palpable. There is friction in the suggested lives of these people, but there is no climactic moment of opposition. Rather, men and women work through the complexities of their existence in beautiful releases and turns that are airy as a spring breeze.

The second half of the program opened with the hilarious situational comedy of The "Tamil Film Songs in Stereo" Pas de Deux (1983). This short and sweet dance offers a peek into a typical studio scenario in which a nervous and wide-eyed pupil takes a private lesson from an austere, yet, immaculate dance master. The maestro is dressed in sea blue tights and emerald leotard and the eager student arrives in tight princess pink.

With a distinguished if not slightly absurd mustache, he demonstrates his across-the-floor combinations with the magnanimity of a handsome raj. She attempts to follow him, but hesitates in her self-consciousness. Her flustered gestures in comparison to his sculpted movement provided half of the laughs, as any student of dance will instantly recognized themselves in her blundering ambition to replicate the artistry of her adored teacher. The other half comes from the dance vocabulary itself, an impossible mix of Martha Graham strides, jazz runs, layouts, ponies and Hindu poses.

The Verdict: SPA's decision to bring the Mark Morris Dance Group to Houston as part of the Tudor family's celebration of dance was not only an inspired one, but an essential one. Mark Morris' dances are noteworthy in that they are not academic exercises or choreographies that are arranged by esoteric experiments in movement. Rather, they are full-fledged theatrical experiences where dance can tell stories about the human condition, even if that includes a laugh or two.

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